Weekly Preaching: November 12, 2017

November 6th, 2017

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a curious blend of the pastorally profound and the apocalyptically curious. Paul’s admonition, “that you may not grieve as those who have no hope,” bears much reflection. You grieve! Sometimes Christians get into this “it was God’s will” or “he’s in a better place” business that is cruel to many, and is theologically vapid. Paul doesn’t say You don’t grieve. You grieve, and heavily — but you grieve as those who have hope.

The “caught up in the air” is more problematical, especially for physics lovers and three-story-universe-skeptics like me. To all this Paul adds, “Comfort one another with these words.” Not God will fix everything now. It’s thoroughly eschatological. We are perhaps not as gifted at comforting each other with full allowance for grief and a firm eschatological hope.

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I like the Matthew 25:1-13 text when I first glance at it; hey, my daughter got married this fall! And I love that terrific choral anthem, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” and would admire my choir singing it to match my sermon. But the text never works well for me. The ending is harsh, which doesn’t mean it isn’t preachable; it just gets moralistic in a nano-second.

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I’ll go with Joshua 24, one of the pivotal and eternally applicable texts in all of Scripture. I rarely title sermons, but this one will be “As for me and my house.” This is the title, by the way, of Walter Wangerin’s fantastic book about marriage, which I’d commend to you, and may touch on in the sermon, as he demonstrates a good bit of what it means for “me and my house” to serve the Lord. The Christian couple focuses on values, on serving the world, on being Christ’s Body, on (as we say in the wedding liturgy) being “a haven of blessing and peace”… “so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”
The place to which Joshua summons everybody matters. Shechem, today, is part of the contested, tense West Bank. The topography is rugged, rocky, and not the easiest drive. In the Bronze Age, if we read between the lines we realize that the Israelites didn’t conquer the whole land, as if by blitzkrieg, and then enjoy total dominance. They won a few places, and not the most fertile; the Canaanites still controlled the main roads and marginalized the Israelites who had to scrape for whatever they could manage. In other words, Israel lived in a hostile environment, as a minority, and religiously, as a downright weird sect.
The question for them was the same for us: What does it mean today to make the choice they made — that we will serve the Lord, this Lord, the biblical God, Jesus Christ, and not all the others? The preacher is wise, periodically, to remind good Christians that many gods compete for our attention and loyalty. In the case of Joshua 24 there is even a peculiar wrinkle: Joshua says “Put away the gods your fathers served.” He’s thinking pagan, Mesopotamiam, and Egyptian idols, many of which had strong footing in Palestine.
But for us: what idols did your parents, whom you love and adore and owe so much to, serve? Jesus spoke of pitting father against son. He’s not stirring up family strife, but pressing for a choice. Many of our parents imbibed the whole civil religion thing of the good American life, American superiority, maybe the god of money and upward mobility, maybe those darker deities that bedevil us still on race or jingoism. Joshua was worried about those Egyptian golden bulls; we have our own golden bull on Wall Street in New York! How do we invite our people to shed even their parents’ lovely ideals, which may even have panned out marvelously, in order to serve the true and living God?
And what does this theological God-choice look like? Not just mental assent, but very practical stuff: how you farm, your job, what you buy, how you treat people (especially different people). As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord — so do we grab the latest gadget? Do we join in neighborhood banter making fun of somebody? Do we give church a skip to get to the golf tournament? Do we turn off the gadgets and TV and observe Sabbath? Examples abound.
For our congregation, it is Communion Sunday. So As for me and my house… involves food: how do we eat, what do we eat (and drink), and why? With whom do we eat? Jesus gave us a very do-able yet rarely-heeded command: “When you give a dinner, do not invite those who can invite you in return, but invite the poor, maimed, lame and blind — and if they don’t come, go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.” As for me and my house… we are at least going to try this.

I laugh out loud when I get to Joshua 24:19. Joshua has just stirred the crowd into a resounding commitment to follow the Lord! His response? “But you cannot serve the Lord.” What??

I can’t probe Joshua’s theology, or even that of the Deuteronomist very incisively. But we have here a humbling, a recognition at the outset that our most determined zeal to serve God will falter, be imperfect, or just be a huge mess. I’m drawn to C.S. Lewis’s clever wisdom in The Screwtape Letters, which envisions the devils plotting to do us in. I love this excerpt: 

“My dear Wormwood, I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian... There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”

Joshua’s passionate tribes still had feet of clay, which we see as the story unfolds. Mind you, Lewis continued that letter by pointing out one of the most surprising perils for the new convert, or the one making a renewed commitment to serve the Lord:
“Desiring their freedom, [God] therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own’. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt..."

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. Rev. Howell's new book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available now.

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